FOX’s hit action drama 9-1-1: Lone Star, which follows the high pressure situations of first responders (namely the paramedics and firefighters of Station 126) in Austin, Texas, is off to a fiery start with its second season.
Nerds and Beyond recently had a chance to talk to Andy Strahorn, 9-1-1: Lone Star‘s Director of Photography. Strahorn has been with the show since the pilot. Prior to joining the Lone Star crew, he was the Director of Photography on FOX’s Lethal Weapon television series. Strahorn has spent decades in the film industry, and he joined us to discuss his history, what exactly his role entails, season 2 of 9-1-1: Lone Star, the epic crossover episode, how the pandemic has affected shooting the show, and more.
(This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.)
Nerds and Beyond: As the Director of Photography, you play a vital role in bringing a piece of television or film to life. Can you give our readers an overview of the main facets of your job?
Andy Strahorn: Basically, the Director of Photography is a visual extension of what writing is and the director’s vision. You’re really the person that can bring all of that, hopefully, to fruition and to screen. So what does that entail? Setting cameras and lights up and lighting the scene for the tone to capture the show, the mood, and so forth. But also it’s marshaling the people around you in a way that can assist you in achieving what you’ve got to do. In some weird way, the antithesis of all of our jobs in the film industry is money. We’re always working under the guise of “no time and not enough money.” Art can’t be really bought. When you bring that into the equation, it’s finding that balance of how do you make the show, movie, or whatever you’re doing, under the constraints of time, weather, money, availability, locations, all of that.
My job is somewhat logistical with regards to dealing with studios, production, producers, director. The flipside of that coin, which is obviously why we all do it, is it’s very creative and liberating to interpret words on a page. And then how do you interpret that in regards to color, shadow, light, and camera movements? What does that say to the audience if you select a certain lens here and isolate a character from the background? As opposed to a wider lens, and now you feel the background around them and you feel the environment. You can say two completely different things to an audience without saying a word. It’s really a marriage of all the art, science, and money. Particularly now in the digital realm, as opposed to the photochemical when we used to do film, it’s a new technology and working with that technology that is moving so very quickly. The first hundred years of cinema, there were really only six or seven film formats. In the last 30 to 40 years of digital, there’s probably 20 to 25 formats. So it just gives you an idea that the technology is moving very fast and almost mimicking our culture.
Nerds and Beyond: Can you tell me a bit about your background in film and movies and how you eventually came to work on 9-1-1: Lone Star?
Strahorn: I started back a long time ago, when I was eight years old in Australia. I grew up in a small country town about eight hours west of Sydney. We had a single-screen theater in the 80s. We went to the movies every now and then, but not like today. The movies played three nights a week. I remember seeing The Empire Strikes Back when I was eight years old, and I didn’t know what I wanted to do, I just knew I wanted to do that. Once I finished high school, my first job in the film industry was at the very cinema that I watched Empire. 10 years later, I got this job as a cleaner at that cinema. So my first foray into the film industry was as a cleaner, not a PA. I worked my way up, did all that, and then became a projectionist, and then moved to a bigger city and started hustling my way into the film industry.
Back then, in Australia, you started off in the camera department as a video studio operator, and you worked your way up to AC and then DP. Along the way, you meet people, you take chances, and you shoot things for free just because of the sheer passion and love you have for cinema. You’re 25 years old you’re like, “Hey, I’ll work for free.” Then, I was lucky and fortunate enough that a movie that we shot [when I was 30] was with a bunch of mates that were successful commercial directors, at least in the United States. And then I just decided to jump on a plane and come over and didn’t look back. I have a lot to owe with regards to growing up in Australia and having that mentality of just like, “Well, you’ve got to keep moving forward. So if that’s where you gotta go, that’s where you gotta go.” You just pick up, grab a suitcase, and you stop at Los Angeles and go, “Well, what do I do now?” You just make your way and meet people. That’s basically how I got here, and I started off with a lot of commercial work in Australia.
In the last 10 to 15 years, streaming and episodic is really an interesting foray now in filmmaking. In the last five years, I really started enjoying shooting episodic because of the nature — you’re telling a story every 10 to 11 days. There was something liberating about that, and I really enjoyed that. I got my break on a show over at Warner Brothers. And lo and behold because of that show that I had shot, which was very action-oriented, I was introduced to the producers and the creator of Lone Star. We had a meeting and kicked it off really well, and the rest is history.
Nerds and Beyond: What does your prep process typically look like for an episode of Lone Star? Who are the key people on set that you do your planning with?
Strahorn: When you’re replicating rescues and so forth, that becomes this really finite marriage of pure logistics mixed with creativity. It’s dealing with stunt, SFX (they supply everything from smoke, to fire, to explosions … you name it, they do that), and then obviously safety, locations. All of these heads of department come into play. A lot of the process is just sitting and listening to each department talk about what their contribution will be to the show and to the scene at hand. You almost become somewhat of a cook once all those ingredients are in the bowl.
The one thing I find really interesting about prep is just listening to other people and hearing their opinions and views on what they’re bringing to the table. We don’t all think the same, so it’s really enlightening sometimes hearing some person’s different take on it. And then going, “Okay, how can I use that?” or, “How can I embellish that?” That is a really fun part, seeing all of these other filmmakers contribute. I have my point of view of color, the tone and mood, and all that. Then I hear people go, “Hey this is what I’m thinking, can we do this or can we do that?” So it’s a lot of bouncing ideas off each other, all walking in the same direction to try to achieve the best results, if you will.
Nerds and Beyond: What have been some of your favorite emergency scenes to create and film for the show? And, if you had to pick one, which was the most challenging?
Strahorn: One of my favorites was … we just aired it recently for this season, and it was a wildfire episode. That was a lot of fun. Partly because, logistically, it was such a huge scale of: how do you create drama and impending danger just off-camera with regards to certain firefighters at certain distances from the line, and what level of intensity of danger is there, of atmosphere, of physical tread? And how to create and put all of that in the mix.
I think, logistically, probably the biggest challenge was the very first one we did, which was the pilot. We had a fertilizer factory that was empty, and it was out in Paris, California. It was huge. There was no power. It was an abandoned facility, and we came in and put power into the situation. It was almost a quarter of a mile squared that we needed to light. That was straight out of the gate and I thought, “Wow, this show is going to be big. This is just the pilot? What happens next?” That was probably one of my fondest ones, because it was like that was the baptism of, “This is the show.” We pulled it off safely, no one was injured or anything like that, but just created the atmosphere of a massive explosion that took place. I thought it came off really well. I’m really proud of that.
Nerds and Beyond: Speaking of some of these wild 9-1-1 calls and emergencies, is there a process that goes on behind the scenes with you, the directors, the writers, where you have to determine the feasibility of creating and filming these emergencies?
Strahorn: My understanding is that a lot of the calls that come in, the ones that we do photograph, are based on real life scenarios of calls being made. When we look at that and bring that to screen, there is a feasibility of going, “Well how do we do this? How do we even photograph it? Number one. And number two, is it even affordable to do that on the schedules that we have?” We have some really talented, creative producers that guide us to knowing, “Yeah, there’s a feasibility that we can do this in the time, the way we want to photograph it, or we can’t.”
Generally speaking, as far as I know, there hasn’t been something where we haven’t done that the creator has wanted. I’m very lucky to be surrounded by a lot of creative, lateral thinkers that can think very fast on their feet, that allow us all to shine. There’s really a sense of camaraderie and teamwork with regards to, “Yeah, let’s do this. This sounds a little different, how do we do this?”
Nerds and Beyond: Coming back to the crossover, which was excellent by the way, it was pretty different from a normal episode of Lone Star with the location, the wildfire. Can you expand upon the process of shooting that a little bit more? Especially because you’ve got the mine, the helicopter … there’s a lot going on.
Strahorn: It was a lot of fun working with those actors from the original 9-1-1. They were such a great asset coming into our show and were so complimentary and just absolutely enjoyable people to be there and work along the 126. Because they’re shooting their own show, which is demanding in itself, I didn’t get the chance to meet any of the actors until they walked straight on set. I had their headshots to go off and whatnot. That’s sometimes a part of my process, looking at the headshots and then trying to look at as many pictures as possible of the actors, on any show that I do. You start to see, from a camera point of view, “Okay, if I want to make them look attractive … if I want to make them looked rugged … if I want to make them look fierce.” You can start to tell by looking at their face, “Okay this lighting will work really nicely here, and this will work there.” Each actor, everyone’s face, anyone who jumps in front of the camera, is different to the next. That was interesting, just learning their faces before they walked on set.
Once we got into the fire and you start getting into the chopper stuff, you’re almost like a conductor, working with the assistant directors and the director, and running multiple units simultaneously. So at that point it almost becomes like a military drill. Whilst we’re on the ground, and the chopper hasn’t started, we’re walking through where certain camera operators will be, where they’re going to be with what talent, and what other shots. We had story boards for some of these big set pieces. The operators knew what they needed to get based off of the story boards. At that point, I’m coordinating with exposures and so forth, to them remotely, and we have multiple cameras on the ground in different areas with different actors in different locations. Then we had cameras in the air from chopper to chopper, and cameras over stunt doubles flying the actual hero chopper. There was a lot of coordinating done on the ground and talking it through so everyone knew very concisely, once that helicopter went up, where we would be. In lieu of that, the biggest thing too is then effects. At the same time, I’m talking through the assistant directors with regards to the effects artists — how much smoke, where I need the smoke in order to create the illusion of wildfire that would be enhanced with visual effects. There’s a lot of that happening at the same time.
I think once you’re in those situations, only experience can really take over at that point, knowing where to put your energy at any given moment in order to capture what you’re shooting. Once those choppers are up in the air, it’s a finite amount of time that you’ll be airborne. It’s a very expensive process, and you have to get everything you need. That in itself was where experience takes over, because you’re dealing with a lot of safety as well with the helicopters. There’s a lot of … being very clear to people, knowing where they’re going to be and what they’re doing, coordinating with other heads of department (like special effects) with regards to what I need, where I need it, because we’re really only in the air for probably 20 to 25 minutes. That’s a lot of footage captured in a short amount of time. It’s adrenaline pumping, it’s exciting, but at the same time there’s a little bit of nerves because there’s a lot of money riding on that. Everyone has to step up to the plate and get what they need to get. Particularly on that episode, it’s very much an expensive peak of the act that you need that grandiose nature that you just can’t get from the ground level. You can to a degree, but once you start getting airborne and above the trees and all the rest of it, that’s when you really get a sense of scale. It was imperative that all of that had to succeed in order for the show and the episode to have a sense of scale for the nature of what the characters were fighting.
Nerds and Beyond: Speaking of the original 9-1-1 and then Lone Star, they both have a cohesive feel as two related shows, but they also have their own distinct appearances, especially considering their fictional locations are in different states. Can you talk about how you went about prepping the look and feel specifically for Lone Star?
Strahorn: Obviously the other show has its own success, and we are here because of that. There was very much an acknowledgement that the success of that show stands upon its own two feet. When we started this, we always knew that the process of going out and making part two of it would render it very short-lived, because you can’t beat the original. So why try to replicate it? You have to kind of take the idea and then go, “We’re going to stand on our own two feet. We’re going to be our own thing.”
Being Austin, Texas, I felt that there should be this kind of heightened grittiness to it. The look has evolved throughout season 1 and into season 2, where it has this kind of warmth, but I would say more copperish tone, that’s very subtle to the day exteriors. That (to me, when I think of Texas) is heat, dryness. Texas really reminds me a lot of Australia and the Outback, to be honest. Then at night, we have the flip side of that coin, which is almost like this coolish steel feel to it. We went down this path where, in order to embrace the climate and whatnot, we had this very subtle bleach bypass look. It had a heightened contrast. It was all based on what presented our lead actor in the best light in a rugged way.
When we did camera tests and costume tests at the beginning of the pilot, that’s what we kind of explored and we went down that path. Now, from episode 1 to 10 of season 1, that has developed and even evolved more. I think that’s just natural for any show. The more you start to learn the environment, and the characters and all that, naturally there’s going to be an evolution to anything. From my end, that gives it a very distinct difference from the Los Angeles 9-1-1 in a way that still pays homage to the namesake of first responders and all the rest of it. But it’s a little bit grittier with the use of color. I think that, in itself, you just look at the two shows and you know this isn’t replicating the success of 9-1-1, it’s its own thing. That was really important when we started this journey.
Nerds and Beyond: What was your plan going into season 2, did you have any specific goals or anything?
Strahorn: I love seeing what happens in our processes. We shoot the day’s worth of photography, and then usually at 4 or 5 a.m. we get sent stills and dailies. Because of the demand of our shooting schedules, I don’t get to see dailies all that often when I would like to. But I see stills from the previous day that are captured from the transfer. It’s nice to go, “Hey, that was great, I liked taking those chances yesterday, now I want to do better.” So going into season 2, I’m really enjoying exploring, “How do we keep fine tuning the sets, the locations, the rescues, the little things? How do we heighten reality? How do we make them look more rugged here? How do we make them look softer in this emotional content for this scene with their loved ones at home?” I’m enjoying all of that, where you have to learn these people’s faces and their characters. The more you learn and know, the more you can kind of get in-depth further with the lighting to reflect where they are emotionally at any given time.
When I go into each day, you’ll have what’s called sides — you’ll just see the scenes you’re shooting that day. As we read them, I always just do a quick glance and refresh on what I’m shooting. Aside from all the logistics and planning, usually my little thing that I do personally is I look at that scene and I think of one word. That’s what I just keep coming back to, and that’s my anchor to how to light the scene. Does this feel ‘this word’? Weighted? Depressing? Sadness? Happiness? Elation? Heroic? That’s my little thing that I just keep reminding myself that keeps me honest as I go about each scene. It’s such a fluid environment, that’s kind of what keeps me thinking in regards to my approach. Once you get into it, lighting to me is purely instinct. You just feel it. If you really break it down, the only true answer I can ever give is it just feels right. It feels appropriate. That’s what governs me when I light, and I like exploring that deeper into a season, like season 2, as opposed to season 1. Because you’re starting to really get to different layers of each character and storyline. And their relationships within each other. That is really fun as you start to scratch those surfaces. You start to really understand the people that you’re photographing, and what does that mean, and how do you translate that just through pictures.
Nerds and Beyond: How have COVID-related filming rules and regulations changed and affected your job on the set of Lone Star for season 2?
Strahorn: I think COVID, it’s impacted everyone’s lives anywhere in the globe. First and foremost, I feel blessed that I’m lucky to work. That opportunity is not wasted on myself personally. What it’s meant for us is that, as per safety agreements and trying to keep everyone safe as much as possible, it’s limited the hours that we’re able to be around and photograph. There’s a different type of pressure that’s exerted for no reason other than safety, and obviously safety is paramount. Losing a couple hours a day because of that, it forces an economy into your way of thinking. What I really admire about the crew, and I don’t want to talk in generalizations of film crews, but we’re so adaptable to locations, weather, and time — you could be shooting at 6 a.m., you could be shooting at 2 a.m., you could be shooting at midnight. Seeing how quickly we could adapt to masks, face shields, distancing, limited people in a designated area, and doing all that, and then still doing the show at the same level, if not higher, is really an interesting thing. It was an adaptation the first couple of weeks, without a doubt, because it was something that none of us had ever encountered before. But we all adapted very quickly.
There are a lot of good things that have come out of this. The shorter work days have been good. It just means that you sprint a lot more, but you go home and people somewhat have a life with their family. It does put more pressure on the Directors of Photography and heads of department because of the limited time as opposed to pre-COVID. There is definitely a limit of time, and what comes with that is the time to execute but also plan. So everything is somewhat expedited. It just means that we’ve had to adjust and adapt. But now that we’ve done it since September, we’re all so used to it that it would seem somewhat luxurious if we were ever to go back to pre-COVID shooting. It would feel like we have all the time in the world. I kind of work off of adrenaline, in some weird way that’s my happy place. It’s just a normal day for me. It has forced us into somewhat of a more concise approach, given that we don’t have the time that we had previously. It’s definitely an expedition of creative percolating of the approach for each episode, each scene, each shot. There are layers of multi-tasking that are taking place at any given time. Whilst I’m shooting and I’m watching, I have operators doing the current shot and I’m looking at color on the DIT station, looking at exposures. I’m talking to my guys with regards to the next shot, and then what is the next shot after that, and I’m already lighting in my head. You somewhat have to work on multiple layers, and I think that’s for any camera person pre-COVID. But now it’s a little bit tighter. It forces that economy, if you will.
Nerds and Beyond: Finally, out of all of the shows and films that you’ve worked on over the years, are there any projects or scenes in particular that you’re most proud of, or that have just stuck with you?
Strahorn: It’s so hard, it would be like asking someone to pick their favorite child. Even though my mom always said I was her favorite child, but I’m sure she said that to my brother and sister as well. There’s different lives for different reasons. I’ve been fortunate enough to do police officers and buddy cop dramas like Lethal Weapon. The movies were such an indelible impression on me growing up, so that was great. I was drawn to Lone Star because I loved Backdraft and firefighters. There’s something really amazing about first responders, the selflessness. It just feels like a compelling thing that you want to do justice to.
I had the fortune of shooting a pilot in New Zealand about a year and a half ago for Disney/ABC. Unfortunately, it didn’t get picked up, but it was very ambitious. We were down there for eight weeks. The one thing that I love about this career is that it takes us to corners of the globe and you see sunrises and sunsets that people pay a lot of money to do. And I’m fortunate enough that I get to see that (or be it, surrounded by a hell of a lot of sheep in a paddock down in New Zealand.) But I got to see that, and at the same photograph something that I was really passionate about — this story that we did about the Bermuda Triangle. It was like, “Wow this is amazing. Would I ever even come to this part of the globe if I wasn’t shooting here?” That is one of the things that I love about each and every time I’ve shot all throughout the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Central America. Being able to have those opportunities to see sunrises, sunsets, people, culture, the way light looks different in the Outback of Australia compared to the West Coast of the United States.
To me, it’s the simple things. That has been really enjoyable, so it’s very hard to define, “What is that one thing?” So much goes into it with regards to the people you work with, the weather, the location. Much like in the actual execution of a film, there’s so much that goes into building a memory. There’s a lot of friends I’ve met all over the globe that I’m fond of, and it’s very hard to pick who, of those people, were responsible for that one indelible impression. It’s all equal. It’s a good question, I just find it hard to really discern which one I love more than most. You’re learning different things at different times in your life; they’ve all been pretty amazing. When I started this journey, I was eight years old in the Outback. To me, films were something that … you went down to the video store and you got a VHS tape. It wasn’t something that you went out and did. So there’s a very much humble approach to “Wow, this is pretty cool I get to do this,” and several decades ago I was thinking, “How the hell do I get there?”